Death

My mother picked up the phone. My mother spoke to my aunt. About fifteen minutes before my girlfriend and I arrived home, and about fifteen minutes after we left his bedside, my grandfather had died.

I had said “I love you” right before we left. So I was the last person to say those two words to him.
He was too weak to speak in reply. But his hand-grip was firm.
The day before he died, Friday, was the last day he was strong enough to drink liquids. We shared a beer. So I was the last person to drink a beer with him.
Before I left on my trip to Indiana and Texas, my girlfriend and I played pinochle with him. It ended in a 1-1-1 draw. (I was never able to consistently beat him.) So I and my girlfriend were the last people to play cards with him.

These things feel so important.

My father, my mother, and I left as the sun set. My grandparents were farmers, but a fall in their healths thirty months ago moved them to an apartment in town. We picked up my grandmother, sadder than I had ever seen her, and drove back into town.

We drove to town on Old Sixteen. We arrived as twilight ended.

I helped my grandmother into a wheelchair and wheeled her up to the elevators. We climbed to the third floor, exited, and approached the hospice wing. Nurses looked at us sympathetically. We met my grandfather’s daughter, her husband and three sons there.

I entered the room and the first thought in my mind was “he is not curled up.” The second was “this is not real” and the third was “he is not in pain.”

The mood was very sorrowful mixed with outbursts of humor.

My grandmother cried.

Soon a woman came in to speak a few words. We introduced ourselves, and I do not remember (either because she did not say or I was not paying attention) who she was. Avera is run by the Presentation and Benedictine Sisters, so she may have been a nun in street clothes. Or maybe just a grief counselor.

We prayed.

In her prayer she said that love is measured in sorrow and joy. That was the lesson of this death. Every time I feel sorry, every time I feel joy, I remember those words.

She mentioned that my grandfather was now “dancing in the streets of heaven, able to intercede for his loved ones.” If the formula of joy and sorry comforts me, this line at least made me smile. I immediately caught the reference to the very Catholic concept of intercession (for my departed Presbyterian grandfather in a room of mostly Missouri Lutherans) . Later my mother mentioned that my grandfather would not, under any circumstances, “dance.” Yet if Love = Sorry + Joy, then love here shines through too. I can see my grandfather’s poker face of deep unconcern for the vagaries of post-mortem negotiations (his theology was best expressed by my mother, “we are all going to be surprised in the end”) while my grandmother would be pleased by a Catholic service (as they, unlike Presbyterians, “at least believe in something” and, unlike Jews, “at least believe in God.” As far as I’ve been able to tell, my grandmother’s hierarchy of faiths is Missouri Lutheran, Wisconsin Lutheran, Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Atheist/Jewish, Nihilist/Presbyterian).

So, joy in the middle of sorry. Love in the middle of love.

The family exited and I reentered. I held his hand. I said “I love you, grandpa.”

My father, mother, and I drove home. My grandparent’s eldest daughter and her husband would stay with my grandmother for the night.

We arrived home.

I cried.